In Pittsville, the geographic middle of Wisconsin, the Rev. Wanda Veldman feels a sense of communion while cooking during the pandemic.
Little surprises — a teaspoon here, tablespoon there — widen her definition of culinary good taste. She adds fresh rosemary to chicken salad sandwich filling. Reason? “We had it on hand.” She mixes garlic powder and dried dill weed into egg salad (“inspired by my favorite cheese curds”), and smoked salt finds its way into pita-style bread dough.
“Cooking is a way to show love for family and friends — a ministry of food,” says the pastor, who leads rural Moravian and United Church of Christ congregations. “In this pandemic, I’m realizing just how essential it is for us to gather around the table and enjoy a meal.”
Bill Penzey, CEO of Penzeys Spices, thinks we’ve returned to “the humanity of cooking” and are “embracing the wider world — all the cultures of America” as the average cook’s spice usage expands. More people are cooking and spending more time at the dinner table, sharing food and “cooking for who’s actually in the room and what connects them,” Penzey says.
That means less influence from hyped food trends and celebrity chef whims. Granulated garlic is the top seller at Penzeys, which is headquartered in Wauwatosa. Next is cumin, a spice long loved around the world, South America to South Asia. It shows up in curry, tacos, stir fries, international stews and soups.
Kosher salt is the biggest surprise seller at The Spice House in Milwaukee. “We are not sure why,” says CEO Charlie Mayer, but “hundreds of enormous orders” have been processed, and orders for other products are “larger than usual” too.
In La Crosse, 37 seasoning blends are key products at Pleasoning Gourmet Seasoning, established in 1952. “Our customers have been trying a lot more than just the one or two blends that they would normally get,” says Kathy Boarman, the second-generation owner. “People want different tastes for all the foods they are cooking.”
Her business specialty is seasoning blends because “cooking with different herbs and spices can be confusing and frustrating,” and these products cut the guesswork. Pleasoning’s All-Purpose blend remains the biggest seller.
Which spices or recipes are inspiring Wisconsin home cooks to amp up meal flavor in new ways during the pandemic?
Erin Glueck of Middleton discovered zhug, a green hot sauce from Yemen, shortly before the pandemic’s arrival. “Similar to pesto, but spicier,” she says. Garlic, coriander, cumin, cardamom, cilantro and chiles share leading roles in the recipe. Glueck uses zhug in pasta, veggies, soups and pizza crust.
“I make it from scratch and freeze it in either ice cube trays or a freezer bag,” she says.
“My Thai game has come a long way,” says John Kovalic of Madison. “I’ve had the time to seek out and work with some — for me — unusual ingredients.”
He recently planted makrut lime trees (leaves and rinds are used in Thai curry) and pegs the cuisine as “mostly ridiculously simple, but the techniques are very important. Speed and heat.”
Georgia Beaverson of Monona feeds a multicultural love for spicy dishes: ramen bowls, Tom Kah soup, Panang curry, red beans and rice, jambalaya. The home cook says she is no stranger to culinary adventure.
“It’s just been a lot more frequent due to COVID,” she says. “I’m also trying out herbs I hadn’t used much” and growing Thai basil.
Kelly Kozar of Madison keeps making chimichurri “because I was craving those fresh herbs.” Her exact herb mix or type of vinegar may vary, but the ratio of herbs and spices to vinegar and olive oil stays the same.
“I put it on everything now, not just steak,” Kozar says. “I love it on scrambled eggs in the morning. I love to dip raw vegetables in it. I use it way more than I used to.”
Gail Snowden, Madison, is growing fond of cardamom. “I found a bread recipe with oatmeal, whole wheat flour and cinnamon,” she says. Adding cardamom is “my one spontaneous step to try something different.”
She bought the spice when visiting Swedish friends in 2018 and also has added it to shortbread-like cookies, scones and oatmeal pancakes.
Pros at play
For Natasha Jules at Jewels Caribbean, 2230 N. King Drive in Milwaukee, playing with spices is not unusual, and a 2019 food trade show gave her the idea to expand chicken wing flavors. She and her mother, Lucile Jules, came up with 50 possibilities last winter.
“It was a fun experiment” that involved friends and a few loyal customers too. “We got it down to 18” before the arrival of the pandemic, when all those wing choices turned into a popular takeout order. Options still range from Apple Honey Crisp and Asian Sesame to Tamarind Cilantro and Zesty Orange.
Mango Gochuhang, one of the more unusual selections, adds “Caribbean flair” to a Korean hot sauce. Most popular: wings marinated in a jerk sauce. Jules’ advice to home cooks: Don’t oversimplify the addition of peppers when cooking.
“It goes beyond poblano, habanero and cayenne,” she emphasizes. “Seek them out. Go to an Asian grocery. Go to an online forum or website – there’s a lot of information out there.”
She recommends CaribbeanPot.com as a resource. “Not every pepper goes with every dish” because the Scoville index of heat intensity for peppers is wide. Consider mixing a fruit or other sweetener, such as honey, with peppers to “bring out a pepper’s flavor – it’s not just about the heat.”
She favors mango but counts pineapple or tamarind pulp as other adventurous considerations.
To Mulu Habtesilassie of Alem Ethiopian Village, 307 E. Wisconsin Ave. in Milwaukee, spice experiments need not be complicated. She favors fresh ginger when cooking, but not only because of the taste. “It helps boost the immune system,” she observes. Simply add fresh ginger, peeled and minced, to a smoothie. Or sip tea with ginger (and add honey for an antioxidant boost).
Yatakilt Alitcha Besiga (beef with steamed vegetables), Yebeg Alitcha (a mild lamb stew) and Fasolia (string beans with potatoes, carrots and onion) are among the Alem dishes that are flavored with fresh garlic and ginger. “This is the way we do it all the time,” not just because of the pandemic, “and we can go from mild to hot” in spice intensity.
Cooking full of care
More consumers than ever are using their kitchens because of stay-at-home orders and social distancing, says Jill Pratt of McCormick and Company Inc. “Some people were either using their kitchens for the first time, or for the first time in a long time” when COVID-19 arrived.
Home cooks also are “cooking more from what they have on hand in the pantry, refrigerator or freezer, and looking for more ideas on how to do this.” As the “new normal” continues, Pratt says, more home cooks are getting creative, relying on spices, herbs and extracts to enhance all aspects of food, from baking to outdoor grilling.
McCormick’s best sellers are not the exotic but “everyday spices” — black pepper, garlic powder, minced onion, onion powder, cinnamon, vanilla extract and taco seasoning mix. Vanilla extract sales are double the rate of one year ago, and Pratt has a handle on why. “Baking is one way to show you care, a family activity to do together and a needed indulgence,” she says. “Baking is also therapeutic” because it helps relieve stress, alleviate boredom and foster a sense of control.
10 must-have spices for your kitchen
What 10 spices should the average home cook have on hand for cooking through the pandemic? Here’s what some spice sellers say:
The Spice House: Sweet basil, Hungarian sweet paprika, Greek oregano, cracked rosemary needles, granulated garlic, Mediterranean broken leaf thyme, mild chili powder, granulated white onion, Saigon ground cassia cinnamon and ground ginger.
Pleasoning Gourmet: Garlic, oregano, celery, ginger, paprika, rosemary, thyme, sage, basil and fennel.
McCormick: Seasoning black pepper, garlic powder, cinnamon, chili powder, cumin, paprika/smoked paprika, oregano, parsley, basil and crushed red pepper. Plus, vanilla extract for baking.
Need a coach?
McCormick in late March introduced new resources to assist home cooks. McCormick Kitchens addresses cooking and baking questions from consumers, via “Ask McCormick” at mccormick.com and Instagram (@mccormickspice).
The Instagram series “Cook With Us” visually answers cooking topics, from how to cook chicken thighs to how to make bread without yeast. A “McCormick Live” cooking series on Instagram and Facebook features 30-minute installments led by culinary experts and digital influencers. Most popular, to date: how to make homemade jambalaya and how to make peanut butter cookie brownies.
From McCormick.com comes an easy stew that introduces flavors of North Africa. We substituted freshly diced onions and bell peppers for the frozen pepper-onion blend and cooked the mix in olive oil. We added a sprinkling of freshly chopped Italian parsley leaves and small dollop of sour cream per bowl as a garnish. When reheating leftovers, we stirred in a handful of baby spinach leaves right before serving.
Moroccan Chickpea Stew
Recipe tested by Mary Bergin
(Makes 6-8 servings)
- 1 tablespoon oil
- 2 cups frozen bell pepper and onion blend
- 1 1/4 teaspoons cinnamon
- 3/4 teaspoon cumin
- 1/2 teaspoon turmeric
- 2 (15.5 ounce) cans chickpeas, drained and rinsed
- 1 (28 ounce) can crushed tomatoes
- 1 (14.5 ounce) can petite diced tomatoes, drained
- 1 1/2 cups chicken broth
Heat oil in Dutch oven on medium heat. Add bell pepper-onion mix. Cook and stir 5 minutes, or until softened. Stir in remaining ingredients. Bring to boil. Reduce heat to medium-low; cover and simmer 20 to 25 minutes, or until chickpeas are tender.
Fennel is one of Bill Penzey’s favorite spices. “The big mistake is adding way too much of it,” he says. “Use just a small amount, to keep people guessing.” As in: This is good, but what is it that I taste? His company’s popular Italian Herb Mix includes fennel “as a subtle flavor in the background.” Use it in spaghetti sauce or a salad dressing of balsamic vinegar and olive oil. “Easy enough for a weeknight supper, but pretty enough for a special dinner” is how this quick and flavorful entrée is described at Penzeys.com. We used ground spices.
Fennel-Crusted Pork Tenderloin
Recipe tested by Mary Bergin
(Makes 2-4 servings)
- 1-2 tablespoons whole fennel seeds (or 1-2 teaspoons ground)
- 2-3 teaspoons whole coriander seeds (or 3/4-1 teaspoon ground)
- 6 tablespoons chicken broth, divided
- 1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
- 2 garlic cloves, minced (or 1/2 teaspoon dry minced garlic)
- 1/4 teaspoon seasoned salt
- 1/8 teaspoon pepper
- 16 ounces pork tenderloin, trimmed
- 2 teaspoons olive oil
If using whole fennel and coriander seeds, place in a spice or coffee grinder (or use a mortar with pestle). Process until coarsely ground. Place spice mixture in blender or food processor. Add 2 tablespoons of broth, Worcestershire, garlic, seasoned salt and pepper. Process until well-blended.
Cut pork tenderloin into two equal pieces. Slice each piece lengthwise, cutting to, but not through, the other side. Open flat. Rub spice mixture over pork.
Heat olive oil in large, nonstick skillet over medium heat. Add pork and cook 5-10 minutes per side, depending on thickness. Remove pork from pan; keep warm. Add remaining 4 tablespoons of broth to skillet and cook until liquid almost evaporates, scraping pan to loosen the browned bits. Spoon over pork and serve.
Spanish smoked paprika plays a leading role in this recipe, which comes from the Tourist Office of Spain in Chicago. Serve the dish as a nibble with cocktails or appetizer before dinner. Exactly how migas should be made in Spain depends upon the region and family traditions. Some cooks add spices to bread cubes that will sit moistened overnight. Minced cured ham might be substituted for diced chorizo. Diced bell peppers, olives or other slivers of flavor are possible additions. Smoked paprika – as opposed to mild or hot paprika — adds subdued flavor that is pleasantly reminiscent of firewood.
Recipe tested by Mary Bergin
(Makes 4-6 servings)
- 1 loaf stale French or Italian bread
- 3/4 cup water, or more
- 2 slices bacon, diced
- 3 tablespoons diced sweet chorizo
- 3 tablespoons virgin olive oil
- 2 cloves garlic, peeled
- 2 tablespoons minced onion
- 2 teaspoons Spanish smoked paprika, or to taste
- Salt to taste
Remove crusts, cut remaining bread into cubes and place in large bowl. Sprinkle water over bread and gently toss until bread is moistened but not soaking wet. Cover and set aside for at least 30 minutes (some cooks let it sit overnight).
Fry bacon and chorizo in large skillet; remove meat and set aside. Add olive oil to remaining meat juices and fry garlic cloves, pressing garlic with the back of a wooden spoon as cloves soften. Remove garlic and add onion. Sautee until onion is golden brown. Add moistened bread to frying pan, stirring constantly with a large wooden spoon or spatula. Break bread into smaller pieces as it fries. Add cooked meat. Sprinkle with paprika and salt. Cook until bread clumps into small balls that are toasted on the outside and soft inside.
Seasonal sweet Rhubarb is popular in Norway, used in cooking and eaten raw with sugar. This variation of a classic Norwegian recipe comes from TheSpiceHouse.com. We used about 2 cups of rhubarb (and would have used raspberries as a substitution if rhubarb couldn’t be found).
Scandinavian Rhubarb Cake
Recipe tested by Mary Bergin
(Makes 8 servings)
For the topping:
- 2 large stalks rhubarb
- 1-2 tablespoons granulated sugar
- Coarse sugar, optional
For the batter:
- 1 1/4 cups flour
- 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
- 1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom
- 1/4 teaspoon ground mace
- 1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
- 2 eggs
- 1 cup sugar
- 1/4 cup melted butter
- 1/3 cup milk
- 1 teaspoon almond extract
Heat oven to 350 degrees. Butter and flour one 9-inch round cake pan. Slice rhubarb into bite-sized pieces and sprinkle with 1-2 tablespoons granulated sugar. Set aside.
Sift flour, baking powder, cardamom, mace and ginger into a small bowl. In a large bowl, beat eggs and 1 cup sugar until uniform in color and combined. Stir in melted butter, milk and almond extract until well mixed. Stir in flour mixture until batter is smooth. Pour batter into cake pan. Scatter rhubarb pieces on top. Top with optional coarse sugar. Bake 30-35 minutes, or until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean.
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